Topic: Government and Politics

Barack Is So Dreamy

The growing political infatuation with Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is fascinating, in part because it’s cropping up across the political spectrum.

The Dems’ weakness in the knees is understandable, given the appealing alternative Obama offers to the party’s otherwise underwhelming roster of standard-bearers. On the Right, David Brooks’ Oct. 19 NYT column “Run, Barack, Run” (subscr. required) titters with excitement over a possible Obama ‘08 presidential bid. And in our corner of the political universe, a few libertarians have confided that they are also smitten with Illinois’ junior senator.

All of these valentines are surprising, given that they’re directed at a senator who has been in Washington for less than two years, and who has no gubernatorial experience. But perhaps it’s the unknown that’s appealing. Like a Rorschach test, we can look at Obama’s not-yet-established political profile and see the outlines of our own beliefs — whatever those beliefs may be.

His surface appeal is understandable; the senator comes across in interviews as thoughtful, bright, caring and articulate. Just as impressively, he doesn’t immediately start mouthing the usual ideological foolishness that has become standard in the puppet theater of D.C. politics.

However, I’m not sure Brooks is correct when he writes that Obama “has a compulsive tendency to see both sides of any issue” and that he is wonderfully free of narrow-mindedness. Consider the senator’s April 2005 speech to the National Press Club, in which he claims Social Security reformers and HSA proponents are motivated by a belief in Social Darwinism:

There’s something bracing about the Social Darwinist idea, the idea that there isn’t a problem that the unfettered free market can’t solve. It requires no sacrifice on the part of those of us who have won life’s lottery — and doesn’t consider who our parents were, or the education we received, or the right breaks that came at the right time.

But I couldn’t disagree more. If we privatize Social Security, what will we tell retirees whose investments in the stock market went badly? We’re sorry? Keep working? You’re on your own?

[…]

And yet, this is the direction they’re trying to take America on almost every issue. Instead of trying to contain the skyrocketing cost of health care and expand access to the uninsured, the idea behind the President’s Health Savings Accounts are to leave the system alone and give you a few extra bucks to go find a plan you can afford on your own. You deal with double digit inflation by going to the doctor less. Instead of strengthening a pension system that provides defined benefits to employees who’ve worked a lifetime, we’ll give you a tax break and hope that you invest well and save well in your own little account.

Of course, the supporters of private accounts and HSAs are not Social Darwinists who want to throw the sick and feeble to the wolves. The various Social Security reform proposals that have been floated include safety nets (not to mention choice), and HSA plans require the purchase of catastrophic health insurance. A thoughtful criticism of those policies would question their workability and the adequacy of the safety nets — yet, that is not what Obama offered in his speech. It thus seems that either (1) the senator is not really thoughtful about Social Security and health care policy, or (2) he is not the open-minded non-ideologue that Brooks claims.

But perhaps this is being too hard on Senator Obama. His Press Club remarks and other such comments may be instances of him playing the political games and mouthing the ideological mantras that are required of politicians. Perhaps the man behind the Politician Obama curtain is every bit as dreamy as his admirers claim.

And indeed, Democrats interested in the Oval Office have sometimes proved to be great benefactors to free markets and limited government. Would Ted Kennedy have been such a champion of transportation regulation reform in 1977 if he hadn’t wanted to take a shot at the White House in 1980? Would Bill Bradley have been such a strong proponent of the 1986 tax reform if he weren’t angling for a 1988 presidential bid? Would Bill Clinton have signed welfare reform in 1996 if he weren’t worried about winning a second term later that year?

Perhaps a Presidential Candidate Obama will soon be whispering sweet nothings into our ears in the form of Social Security or Medicare reform. Or perhaps a President Obama would nurture a more thoughtful and humble federal government and a civil society that re-embraces the fundamental American ideal of individual liberty.

Or perhaps I’m just lost in the magic of his eyes…

Can Bloomberg Manage America?

Richard Cohen speculates that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg might spend as much as half a billion dollars of his personal wealth on a race for president. He could certainly afford to. His company may be worth as much as $25 billion, and it has recently been reported that he could realize $7 billion from a “leveraged recap” while retaining 70 percent of the company. And a top Republican fundraiser pointed out to me that if you don’t have any fundraising expenses, then half a billion is the functional equivalent of a billion-dollar campaign fund. If a lunatic billionaire could get 19 percent of the national vote by spending $70 million in 1992, how much better could a sane and stable billionaire with ten times that much money do?

Cohen writes that “there is no doubt that Bloomberg has done a terrific job managing New York, and there is no doubt that the federal government is a mismanaged mess.” True enough.

But if anyone thinks that a good manager can make the federal government run like a well-oiled machine, he’s going to be disappointed. In the first place, the federal government is far larger than Bloomberg LP or even the New York City government. It’s not amenable to hands-on management. And more importantly, government failure is systemic. It’s not a product of stupid or lackadaisical presidents or Cabinet secretaries. It results partly from inherent disagreements about what would be good policy; a corporation may have one goal or mission, but a society does not. And if government is supposed to reflect society, then it can only have a clear mission as long as that mission is to protect citizens from rights violations and leave them otherwise free to pursue happiness in their own ways. Once government begins taking on broader duties, citizens will disagree about what it should do.

And then there are the institutional obstacles to lean and effective government. As Milton Friedman told President Bush (pdf) in 2002, “if you spend someone else’s money on someone else, you are not very concerned about how much is spent, or how it is spent.” The problems of incentives, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the concentration of power, and bureaucratic self-interest cannot be solved by a hard-nosed manager who’s good at hiring, firing, and delegating.

Federalism Gone Awry

Many self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives in Congress defend pork-barrel spending by arguing that the practice circumvents the wasteful Washington bureaucracy and allows folks who best know the local community (i.e. congressmen) to steer money where it is most needed.

For instance, in a misguided appeal to federalism Representative Mike Simpson and Senator Larry Craig, both conservative Republicans from Idaho, assert, “We have always believed that better decisions are made by local officials. Who would you rather have making decisions about funding for Idaho? Lawmakers who are accountable to you, or some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., who has never stepped foot in Idaho?”

It’s a clever attempt by Simpson and Craig to redefine the term “local officials” and frame the earmarking issue in their favor. But an article in the Raleigh News & Observer tells a different story:

North Carolina’s members of Congress quietly took control of more than $135 million from the state Department of Transportation last year to help pay for dozens of highway projects they favored.

That means other projects deemed more important by state and local officials must be delayed.

The new projects dictated by Congress didn’t have enough support in North Carolina to be included among the 2,337 funded in the state’s 2006-2012 Transportation Improvement Program.

And the problem is worsening:

Within broad guidelines set by Congress, the states have traditionally decided how to spend their share of federal gasoline tax receipts. But that is changing.

The growth of earmarks in the transportation reauthorization bill, which Congress considers about every six years, has been remarkable. It raises questions about who knows best how to spend federal highway money: members of Congress, or state and local officials and the highway planners who assist them.

If Simpson, Craig and their colleagues in Congress truly believe in federalism, they sure have a funny way of showing it.

Santorum v. the Pursuit of Happiness

I hate to keep picking on Sen. Rick Santorum, but he’s the most articulate and principled opponent of individualism and individual rights since Hillary Clinton first rose to prominence. I noted previously the NPR interview in which he rejected “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone”:

This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

Now Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to a television interview from the same time last year in which the senator from the home state of Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson denounces America’s Founding idea of “the pursuit of happiness.” If you watch the video, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

Santorum has done some good things in the Senate, such as supporting Social Security reform. But conservatives should call him out when he denounces individualism, personal autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Libertarian Vote in the New York Times

A big tip of the hat to John Tierney for his column today. It’s hidden behind a TimesSelect wall, but here’s a selection:

These federal intrusions are especially scorned by independent voters in the Western states where Republicans have been losing ground, like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Montana. Western Democrats have been siphoning off libertarian voters by moderating their liberal views on issues like gun control, but Republicans have been driving libertarians away with their wars on vice and their jeremiads against gay marriage (and their attempt to regulate that from Washington, too).

Libertarian voters tend to get ignored by political strategists because they’re not easy to categorize or organize. They don’t congregate in churches or union halls; they don’t unite to push political agendas. Many don’t even call themselves libertarians, although they qualify because of their social liberalism and economic conservatism: they want the government out of their bedrooms as well as their wallets.

They distrust moral busybodies of both parties, and they may well be the most important bloc of swing voters this election, as David Boaz and David Kirby conclude in a new study for the Cato Institute. Analyzing a variety of voter surveys, they estimate that libertarians make up about 15 percent of voters — a bloc roughly comparable in size to liberals and to conservative Christians, and far bigger than blocs like Nascar dads or soccer moms.

Find the study here.

America’s National Truck?

As another election approaches, Americans have probably grown jaded toward politicians who use naked appeals to patriotism to win votes. Now patriotic appeals are being enlisted to sell pickup trucks.

Baseball fans watching the World Series game Friday night witnessed an ad by General Motors that had nothing to do with the finer qualities of its Silverado pick up truck. Set to the driving beat of a John Mellencamp song, “Our Country,” the ad flashed images designed to tug at the heart of every red-blooded American. (It certainly tugged at mine.) Here’s how a New York Times story today described the ad:

As the commercial begins, an industrial history rolls out, touching the usual icons of the Statue of Liberty, busy factory workers and Americans at their leisure. But then a more conflicted narrative emerges, quickly flashing on bus boycotts, Vietnam, Nixon resigning, Hurricane Katrina, fires, floods, then the attacks of Sept. 11, replete with firefighters.

All that’s missing is a plague of locusts, until the commercial intones ‘This is our country, this is our truck’ as a large Silverado emerges from amber waves of grain.

The not-so-subtle message is that if you are a real American, you buy a real American vehicle. Of course, this is not the first time patriotism has been exploited to sell a product, but the ad obscures an important fact about the American automobile industry: it is far more diverse today than the Big Three of Ford GM, and Chrysler.

In a Cato Free Trade Bulletin published over the summer, my colleague Dan Ikenson and I showed that, while Ford and GM in particular have struggled with declining sales and huge losses, the U.S. automobile market remains healthy. Last year, American workers produced about 12 million cars and light trucks domestically, including those made in factories owned by Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and BMW. American families can chose from a wider range of affordable, quality vehicles than perhaps ever before.

The Big Three have been losing market share, not because Americans are any less patriotic than in the past, but because Americans are increasingly exercising their freedom to decide for themselves what  is “our truck.”